More Slow Archaeology

Over the weekend, I made more headway in revising my slow archaeology article. Addressing some of this paper’s reviewers, I introduced some of the ideas of slow archaeology earlier in the paper and also tried to situate my own position of privilege. 


Slow archaeology draws upon ideas developed both amid a scholarly critique of speed and in the more popular slow movement. Scholarly criticism of speed is most frequently associated with larger critiques of modern capitalism. For David Harvey, for example, the speed of capital in contemporary society has outstripped human conceptions of time and space, and led to “the annihilation of space by time” through “time-space compression” (Harvey 1990). Marc Augé (1995) recognized the speed of the contemporary world as a significant contributor to the serialized production of non-places which exchange the distinguishing characteristic of place for the efficiency of legibility. Paul Virilio, in his concept of dromology, has stressed the transformative aspects of speed and perhaps more importantly acceleration in modern society. Beginning with the industrial revolution the drive to make things and processes faster, more efficient, and more connected has become an end unto itself. For Virilio, speed produces a distinct realm of experience and knowledge (Virilio 1995; James 2007, 31-32). A traveler in a car both experiences and produces the landscape in a way that is distinct from the experience of the landscape on foot (Virilio 2001). Hartmut Rosa (2013), following Virilio and Augé, argues that the rapidly shrinking present has created a kind of fluid, unstable, and unfamiliar world.

The popular media has explored a critique of speed through concepts like “slow food” which celebrates the deliberate preparation of locally sourced food stuff as a challenge to the homogenized and generic fast food experience. Initially championed by the Italian activist Carlo Petrini (2003), the idea of slow has offers a way to summarize a wide range of criticism of the speed of contemporary life. Carl Honoré (2004) and others have extended the Petrini’s idea of slow to a wide ranging critique of the cult of speed in the modern world. These writers have endured criticism, of course, especially from those who see the opportunities to slow down as only possible because of prosperity provided by the inhuman efficiency of the industrial world. Despite these critiques, these authors have offered practical advice on how to slow down individual engagements with the world. Petrini, for example, celebrates local food ways. Honoré advises that we set aside time to unplug and to savor the pleasures of experience without interruption or mediation.  

Slow archaeology calls upon archaeologists to recognize the influence of speed on archaeological practice. This paper will not call on archaeologists to discard their digital tools or reject the remarkable benefits of technology for a romanticized past. Instead, I will offer a critique of both certain digital practices and, perhaps more importantly, the way in which these tools are described and promoted in the scholarly discourse. I remain skeptical that archaeology will benefit from tools that offer greater efficiency, consistency, and accuracy alone, and my hope is that this skepticism has particular significance at a time when a new generation of digital tools are entering the field.

Unpacking the implications of our use of digital tools and the adoption of streamlined practices require some attention to the intersection of scientific and industrial practices in archaeology. At the same time, the recent growth of contract, salvage, and rescue archaeology has made the influence of speed and capital on archaeological work particularly visible. While similar pressures have long existed for academic archaeologists, the pressures of development and the efficient management of heritage as a resources have provided ample reason for the enthusiastic adoption of digital tools and practices. The goal of slow archaeology is, on the one hand, to recognize archaeological work and the particular emphasis on efficiency, economy, and standardization in digital practices within the larger history of scientific and industrial knowledge production. This chapter also seeks to carve out space within the proliferating conversation about digital archaeology for practices and tools that embrace the complexity of archaeological landscapes, trenches, and objects. In this way, slow archaeology recognizes that the presentation and publication of archaeological tools and arguments tends to simplify the impact of technologies and the often-messy relationship between evidence and argument. In this way, slow archaeology finds common cause with Eric Kansa’s recent interest in “slow data,” which recognizes and embraces the complex, dynamic, and profoundly human character of archaeological datasets. 

My position as a tenured, academic archeologist provides a distinct professional context for slow archaeology. I recognize that my arguments for a slow archaeology come from a position of privilege. I am an academic archaeologist who relies on his research for professional advancement, but not professional survival. I have tenure, and as a result, I can be more deliberate in the race against the clock to produce publications. I also have the good fortune to work on archaeological projects with the manpower, time, and funding that align closely with our research objectives. These luxuries have allowed us to consider a wide range of archaeological documentation processes without particular concern for efficiency. We have deployed range of digital tools and practices from the use of iPads and structure-from-motion (SfM) 3D imagine to now standard reliance on differential GPS units, relational databases, and GIS. This article then is not the frustrated expressions of a Luddite outsider, but an argument grounded in familiarity with digital field practices.

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